It's coming up on three years since Paul Hewitt stepped into a gym in Riga, Latvia, and glimpsed the player who perhaps best embodies the 76ers' still-distant future.
On July 6, 2011, Hewitt was coaching the United States' team in the FIBA Under-19 World Championships, and the Americans had gone 5-0 before facing Croatia and one of the tournament's most curious attractions: a small-forward phenom named Dario Saric.
Because Riga is less than 100 miles north of the Latvia-Lithuania border, Arena Riga would be packed for any game in which one of those two Baltic States was competing. But for United States-Croatia, Hewitt said, "nobody was there." Pity that so many missed the chance to see what Hewitt did: the kind of performance that validated the fascination that Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie and other NBA talent evaluators have long had with Saric.
Against a team that included Doug McDermott and pros Jeremy Lamb and Tim Hardaway Jr., Saric was the difference in an 87-85 Croatia victory that day. He scored 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and made those few fortunate witnesses forget that he was just 17 years old - nearly two years younger than the youngest player on the U.S. roster.
From the sideline, Hewitt watched as a gangly kid who hadn't yet grown into the 6-foot-10, 223-pound frame he inhabits today dominated the Americans from the high and low posts, controlling the pace of play, finding teammates cutting to the basket, hitting fadeaway jump shots and runners across the lane. Once the game ended, Hewitt offered the sort of heady comparison that compelled the Sixers to trade for Saric's rights during last week's NBA draft.
"Just a multidimensional talent," Hewitt, the head coach at George Mason University and a former assistant at Villanova, said in a telephone interview. "I said to somebody on my staff, 'I imagine that's what Dirk Nowitzki looked like at that age.' "
Saric is 20 now, and if his decision to sign a three-year contract with a professional franchise in Turkey scared NBA teams enough that he dropped to the No. 12 pick in the draft, the Sixers and Hinkie were happy to accept the calculated risk of acquiring a player who might not suit up for them until 2017.
At least Joel Embiid could, in theory, appear in an NBA game during the 2014-15 season. But Saric will remain a mystery to most on this continent for a long time, and the Sixers and their followers will have to be content to trust Hinkie's judgment that Saric will be worth the wait.
Understand: It doesn't much matter if another GM wouldn't be patient enough to let Saric develop overseas, because Hinkie is. In an interview last year, he confessed that he uses the San Antonio Spurs as his primary model for rebuilding the Sixers, and one of the reasons he so admires what the Spurs have achieved - the five league championships over the last 15 years, the consistent excellence - is how they have achieved it. They were willing, in the example Hinkie cited, to draft David Robinson with the No. 1 overall pick in 1987, then wait two years for him to complete his active-duty obligation with the Navy.
Yet when discussing Hinkie's decision to trade the rights to guard Elfrid Payton to Orlando for Saric, the more appropriate template is Manu Ginobili's. Though the Spurs drafted Ginobili in 1999, a month before he turned 22, he continued to play in the Italian League before making his NBA debut in October 2002. It's clear that Hinkie considers Saric to be on a parallel path, to be cut from the same competitive cloth.
"He's been a warrior and a champion at all the junior levels of competition," Hinkie said.
Several members of the Sixers' player-personnel and scouting staffs, Hinkie among them, attended Saric's first professional game in Zagreb, Croatia's capital and largest city, "which was a sight to behold in itself," Hinkie said, "the fanfare that came with him being there and the way he played that night."
But the Sixers have to hope that Croatia's pride in Saric and Saric's loyalty to his home country didn't come with a cost. During that 2011 FIBA tournament, when he would ask basketball people about Saric, Hewitt uncovered just one concern: At the time, Saric was on Croatia's under-19 team and its under-17 team, and his back sometimes bothered him because he was playing so frequently.
"Somebody said that year that he played up to 160 ball games," Hewitt said. "I don't know if that's true or not, but that was the only question we had."
Hewitt was careful to parse his comparison of Saric to Nowitzki, emphasizing that he was talking about Saric as the 17-year-old he was then, not the man and player he might yet become.
"Now, is he going to work as hard as Dirk? Stay healthy? All those things come into play," he said. "But he was really good. If this guy stays healthy, he could be a monster." For that prospect, for that kind of player, Sam Hinkie will tell you the same thing every time: Hell, yes, he was worth the risk.